The Guardian

The Guardian August 1, 2001


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Kill 'em all. It saves money

Did you see where Philip Morris, the transnational tobacco corporation, has 
come up with the outrageous notion that because smokers die early it saves 
governments lots of money in health care costs and pensions? 

Philip Morris made the claims in specific connection with the Czech 
Republic. According to the tobacco giant, the premature deaths of smokers 
there has "saved" the Czech Government about US$58 billion.

It's a cute idea, though, isn't it? Looked at in this way  fatal 
industrial accidents and the road toll actually "save" us money. And 
natural disasters like earthquakes that kill thousands become economically 
desirable. Talk about sick thinking!

* * *
Dream politics There is a famous sci-fi story called "Do Robots Dream Of Mechanical Sheep?". A certain Dr Kelly Bulkeley of the University of California would probably answer, "yes". Dr Bulkeley has been studiously analysing the dreams of men divided into whether they were left wing men or right wing. (What the criterion was for deciding if they were "left wing" I do not know. In the US it could be anything from voting Communist to voting Democrat or eating macro-biotic food.) Whatever the classification basis, the good doctor claims that the two groups have radically different dreams. Right-wing men apparently are prone to nightmares about their hair falling out (threats to their virility, I suppose) or being trapped in a room with a bear armed only with a gun that doesn't work (damn liberals and their gunlaws). On the other hand, says Dr Bulkeley, left-wingers tend to have sexual dreams about their girlfriends. It's amazing what US academics can get away with, isn't it?
* * *
Faults? What faults? Have you ever noticed how there are plenty of those "science" shows on TV that utilise NASA footage of the designing and manufacturing and even launching of whiz-bang new satelites, space vehicles, telescopes etc, but hardly any that do follow-ups to see if the thing was as whiz-bang in practice as the pre-launch hype made out? The International Space Station, launched in a blaze of US-oriented hype that tended to obscure the involvement of other countries (especially Russia), was represented as the last word in sophisticated space technology, unlike the much maligned Mir station that it replaced. Mir was designed for a maximum life of five years in space, but ended up staying in use for more than twice that long. It was a tribute to its Soviet designers and engineers that it could sustain life and enable valuable scientific work to take for such a long time in the harsh environment of space. The politically-fostered jokes about Mir's supposed shortcomings and mishaps were simply a continuation of the Cold War practice of denigrating all suggestion of Soviet achievement in technology or science (except in regards to new weapons, where they were useful for gouging more money out of Western governments). Well, Mir is gone now, and Russia is without a manned space program of its own, with a consequent undercutting of its scientific and technological development. The space program brought together some of the best brains in the country to work on the frontiers of knowledge and scientific discovery. Now many of them have been poached by US institutions where their work will probably end up in George Bush's NMD "Star Wars" project. As for the US$97 billion International Space Station, its US and Russian crew is already finding that it was over-hyped. It seems it is very noisy at night, making sleep difficult. There are breakdowns and minor malfunctions: an air circulation fan broke, the ward-room table's legs came loose, which would allow the table to float around the station). Attempts to fix the broken fan were obstructed by poor design: part of the structure was in the way. Power tools had to be resorted to and the special jell used to trap filings and chips in zero gravity so "they" didn't float around (like the potato crisps Homer sent flying around the space shuttle in a memorable episode of "The Simpsons") couldn't be found. They had to use taco sauce from the Station's food supply and found that it stuck to the velcro pads used to grip pieces of equipment. Most galling of all, the computerised system of reporting these mishaps and faults ("squawking" in NASA jargon) refused to work. "We have tried several times to get the squawk tool running", said Commander Bill Shepherd. Still, I am sure they will get them all sorted out, and without an orchestrated campaign of news stories beginning: "The trouble-prone space station ..." Incidentally, interesting to note that all the medical supplies on the International Space Station are Russian. Of course, the US astronauts have complained of "difficulties" because the medical supplies are labelled in Russian. Why can't the pesky Russians use English like the rest of the New World Order, eh?

Back to index page